Evolution for Everyone

Atheism as a Stealth Religion

In today’s polarized world, the conflict between atheism and religion is shaping up to be the fight of the century. In this corner, the new atheists, flexing their muscles with books such as God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In that corner, the religious fundamentalists, who are responsible for 9/11, the Christian takeover of America, polluting the minds of their children, and numberless other atrocities. It’s science and reason against dogmatism and blind faith, making it obvious who the enlightened liberal should root for.

Well, not quite. The truly enlightened liberal should experience a twinge of doubt about the very blackness and whiteness of it. Let me show you how a bit of evolutionary thinking can paint a more interesting picture in shades of gray.

The new atheists hate religion for causing between-group conflict and especially for its wanton disregard of the canons of rational thought. Yet, both of these problems extend far more widely than religion. Between-group conflict pervades the animal world. Ant colonies, lion prides, and chimp troops don’t have religion, but they do have between-group conflict. As for the canons of rational thought, to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world–not to directly represent the real world.


This leads to a crucial distinction between what I call factual and practical realism. Consider Hans and Igor, who are mortal enemies. Hans understands that Igor is much like himself, even to the point of competing for the same square of ground. Igor regards Hans as an inhuman monster, completely unlike himself. If Igor’s belief makes him fight with greater determination, then it counts as practically realistic, even if it is factually incorrect. Now imagine similar contests among beliefs–and the brains that create beliefs–taking place over thousands of generations of genetic and cultural evolution. Voila! We arrive at a conception of human mentality that is far more nuanced and interesting than the black-and-white cartoon of atheism vs. religion.

Factual and practical realism are not always at odds. To pick an obvious example, a hunter needs to know the exact location of his quarry. The point is that the relationship between the two is complex and that our minds are prepared to massively depart from factual realism, when necessary, in ways that motivate effective action. This is not a sign of mental weakness but a time-tested survival strategy. Moreover, adaptive fictions are not restricted to religions. Patriotic histories of nations have the same distorted and purpose-driven quality as religions, a fact that becomes obvious as soon as we consider the histories of nations other than our own. Intellectual movements such as feminism and postmodernism are often shamelessly open about yoking acceptable truths to perceived consequences. That’s what it means to be politically correct. Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed as not just wrong but as purpose-driven. Scientific theories cannot be expected to approximate factual reality when they are proposed, but only after they have been winnowed by empirical evidence.

These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents–a particular departure from factual realism–is just a detail. It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, non-religious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.

That brings us back to atheism. The discerning liberal (or any intellectual) would be a fool to assume that atheism stands for pure reason, just because it doesn’t invoke the gods. We need to give atheism a good hard look to see if it is functioning as a stealth religion. Fortunately, basic design principles enable us to do just that.

The real world is full of messy trade-offs. When behaviors are evaluated for their effects on self and others, for example, some are good for both (++), or bad for both (–), but many are good for some and bad for others (+- or -+). Any belief system that accurately represents the real world will include examples of all four possibilities. The main purpose of a religion or a stealth religion, however, is not to describe the real world but to motivate a given suite of behaviors. One way to do this is by creating a stylized world without tradeoffs, in which the prescribed behaviors are portrayed as good, good, good for everyone and the prohibited behaviors are portrayed as bad, bad, bad for everyone. Behaviors with mixed effects are absent from the stylized world because they do not clearly tell the believer what to do.

Using this simple method, it is easy to show that fundamentalist religions portray a world without trade-offs, very unlike the real world, which propel the believer along a single path toward glory and away from ruin. Unfortunately, at least some version of atheism fare no better.

As exhibit A, consider Ayn Rand, the new atheist of her day who claimed that her philosophy of Objectivism was based entirely on reason and science. She corrected people who called her an individualist by saying that she was a rationalist. Nevertheless, her philosophy portrays a world without tradeoffs, just like religious fundamentalism. The two belief systems motivate different suites of behavior, of course, but in both cases they stuff the believer, like a human cannonball, into an ideological cannon to be shot in the direction of glory and away from ruin.

The Ayn Rand movement was just like religious fundamentalism in other respects. Rand was treated as an infallible oracle–the very opposite of reasoned discourse–and members of the movement spent their time casting out false premises as if they were so many demons. A lifelong smoker, Rand was nevertheless astonished when she contracted lung cancer. How could she get cancer when she had no false premises? She was no more rational about the nature of disease than evangelical Christians lining up to be healed. Even today, Rand’s novels sell many thousands of copies a year and the Ayn Rand Institute attempts to lure new members with the following appealing invitation: “Those who have read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged know that the sunlit universe Ayn Rand depicts in her novels is unlike the world that they see around them. How can one achieve the clarity of vision and joyous existence that her fictional heroes achieve?”

How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).

One purpose of this blog is to act as a portal for those who like to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with the details. Both I and Michael Shermer, the intrepid editor of Skeptic magazine, have written about Ayn Rand as a stealth-religious zealot in our respective books, Evolution for Everyone and Why People Believe Weird Things. I have critiqued two books by the new atheists (Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins The God Delusion) at length elsewhere. I am also involved in the establishment of evolutionary religious studies as an authentic scientific discipline. One reason that I am passionate about exposing the new atheism as a stealth religion is because it distracts attention from something far more important and interesting–the proper study of religion and all forms of human mentality from an evolutionary perspective.

Finally, the fact that factual realism tends to be subservient to practical realism is a statement about how the mind works, not about how modern beliefs systems should be. We need respect for factual realism as never before to arrive at practical solutions to life’s complicated problems. Evolutionary theory tells us that this objective doesn’t come naturally and that some clever social engineering will be required, much as enduring religions manage to expand the circle of cooperation more widely than the tiny social groups of our ancestral past. The new atheists will need to display a virtue typically associated with religion–humility–if they wish to join this enterprise.

Comments

  1. #1 Newfie
    October 21, 2009

    Or, it could be one of the oldest forms of social engineering to gain power and influence. There are still incurious apes a plenty. And some that do figure out the scam, still keep giving to the engineer as too not cause trouble or stress on the group as a whole.
    P.T. Barnum notwithstanding, it’s still human nature. But one look at the Scandinavian countries today, shows that it’s not an inevitable outcome. When there aren’t many running around telling people to care, people stop caring, and move on.

  2. #2 InfuriatedSciTeacher
    October 21, 2009

    I agree wholeheartedly with the assessment of Rand, largely because of her blind devotion to an individualist and capitalist economic system without considering the practical implications of not bothering to help those who are born into unfortunate circumstances. This is currently embodied in libertarianism.
    I would like to see an instance where Dawkins or Dennett deny that there is some utility, present or in an evolutionary sense, to religious belief. Dennett gives a treatment of that exact subject from what I remember of Breaking the Spell, which I doubt you needing reminding of since you read and reviewed it. Hitchens I’ll grant you, as he seems the most polarising of the lot, and most readily fits your description.

    Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed as not just wrong but as purpose-driven. Scientific theories cannot be expected to approximate factual reality when they are proposed, but only after they have been winnowed by empirical evidence.

    I presume you’re talking about your own group-selection theory here? Do you feel it’s being treated differently than, say, Gould and Eldridge’s idea of punctuated equilibrium or Wegner’s continental drift? How so? I’d like to ask what mechanism for replication you propose for group selection, but I’ll go read your publications before I do… it’s possible I simply haven’t been exposed to that.

  3. #3 royniles
    October 22, 2009

    “to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world–not to directly represent the real world.”

    The “brain” has always been a mechanism that serves the purpose of making choices based on whatever the organism has been able to sense of whatever part of the world its array of sensory equipment can cause or allow it to assess as real. The choices are based on whatever that brain has learned or been “taught” from the consequences of any previous trial and error probing and choosing, which would include whatever “lessons” its “ancestors” (as well as contemporaries) have been able to pass forward from their own such experiences.

    These brains thus seek to model the real world, and their survival depends on the relative degree of success they can achieve in the process. Their main purpose is more predictive than causative.
    So if your premise is that since brains are there to cause adaptation without prior concern for the reality of the environment they are adapting to, as long as whatever works works, you are off to a bad start in your philosophy.

  4. #4 royniles
    October 22, 2009

    That last comment was to welcome you to scienceblogs, and whether you approve of it or not, I promise it will be my last.

  5. #5 Ian
    October 22, 2009

    Well of course Ayn Rand’s objectivism is creepy and entirely self-assured.

    But the new atheists have unquestioned leaders? huh? I’d rather go be a methodist or something if being an atheist means I have to agree with the imperialism of Hitchens. Get your head out of the clouds.

    It doesn’t surprise me that your major gripe with the new atheists is that it distracts from your pet theory. your not the first with this problem.

    Just because religion has a scientific explanation doesn’t really change much.

  6. #6 andrew
    October 22, 2009

    This is a pretty novel way of looking at things. However, I am having a hard time grasping the idea of a certain type of atheism as a “stealth religion”. I can see how there can be similar aspects-but this is through the perspective of anthropology. The major motifs that I observe is that humans are ritualistic, symbolistic. I can see how framing certain rituals and symbols in a particular atheism is very similar to how religious people do it. But does that necessarily mean “new atheism” is a religion? I tend to not think so. There are symbols and rituals in baseball..does that make it a stealth religion? And its highly institutionalized.

  7. #7 Charles
    October 22, 2009

    You miss the point. You posit very reasonable explanations for why religion and religious thought exists and why it can be beneficial to the survival of an organism. None of this has any bearing on whether we (humans) should retain these philosophies.

    As a scientist you understand very well (better than I do, I expect) that ideas and information require scrutiny before they can be accepted and used to make decisions or form conclusions. Again and again American culture fails to do this. We take ideas and information at face value because they worked in the past or because they paint a comforting picture of reality, and we make decisions which affect the lives of millions based on this totally unverified data. This is unethical.

    When government institutions legislate against something like gay marriage (sorry for being painfully topical) using religious arguments as the foundation of their reasoning, there is something very wrong. When parents make decisions that lead to the deaths of their children because they believed faith healing would do the trick, we need to realize that there is a problem. We need to realize that this way of thinking, which may have been beneficial to us in the past (this is arguable), is now causing substantive problems which far outweigh any theoretical benefits.

    To make matters worse, the propagation and social acceptance of the type of thinking that deems ‘faith’ a virtue bleeds into things other than the religious and metaphysical. Just take a look at the current political stage, where the public is perfectly willing to take whatever their preferred news outlet tells them at face value. This type of thinking, where a person is able and willing and encouraged to believe an idea without any evidence or worse, with evidence to the contrary, is nothing short of pollution. This is deteriorating our decision making process on just about every conceivable level. It doesn’t matter whether you are making decisions for your family, or for the country, or for the world. Willingly using bad data in that process is unethical in the extreme.

    Should we attempt to understand religious thought both historically and biologically? Absolutely. Should our understanding stop us from criticizing religious thought and religious ideas the way we would any other information? Absolutely not.

  8. #8 abb3w
    October 22, 2009

    If Igor’s belief makes him fight with greater determination, then it counts as practically realistic, even if it is factually incorrect.

    I think the belief only qualifies as practically realistic if it makes him fight with greater effectiveness; the difference is subtle, but significant.

  9. #9 Heraclides
    October 22, 2009

    Atheism as a [Stealth] Religion

    Just taking this one point, as I haven’t time for more.

    Atheism as a religion: no. As a cult, perhaps, in particular circumstances.

    Religions are “about” some text or word of some god(s) being the inerrant truth. Atheism simply doesn’t have that, so can’t be a religion. Science isn’t about an inerrant truth, a point that many people seem to miss. It’s about seeking the truth, and having the best answer you can; you accept that your current models are just “best working models”, they’re not accepted as “truth” in the religious sense.

    (You argue there is scope for a non-scientist believing literally, but this has a contradiction in terms built into it.)

    Cults are more about a personality. The leader is what the cult is as it were. His/her word is the invariant truth. Unlike religions, there is no source (e.g. a book) independent of the leader that can be examined independent of this person, which is what makes cults so dangerous and why they can be so deviant.

    These are, of course, just two extremes to illustrate my point. Reality has a mixture of the two. Scientology has books, but Hubbard figures strongly.

    Rand was treated as an infallible oracle, if true, points to a cult, not a religion.

    Trying to point to “pragmatic” non-reason-based beliefs as some reason for atheism being a religion of some sort to me is neither here nor there. Atheism is “about” the absence of what religion is (inerrant truth proscribed by mythological beings). If some group slavishly follows the word of, say, Dawkins as being the inerrant, unquestionable, truth then, yes, it could be cultish for those people. But not a religion.

    Just my relatively uninformed opinion.

  10. #10 Heraclides
    October 22, 2009

    Sorry ‘You argue there is scope’ should read ‘You could argue there is scope’. (I mean ‘you’ in the third person sense, not you, personally.)

  11. #11 alnitak
    October 22, 2009

    How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).

    No, no, no. This won’t do.

    No. Even the most vitriolic of the “Four Horsemen,” Christopher Hitchens, praises the good works that religion has done and especially the good people who happen to be religious; he believes that “adding in religion” actually reduces the value of the good produced, but there is much good done in the name of religion. Similarly, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. To make the claim that Dan Dennett considers all religion “bad, bad, bad” raises the question of whether Mr. Wilson has actually read any of Dennett’s books.

    No. Sam Harris would like a portion of the “unquestioned authority,” after all the flack he took over saying “let’s not call ourselves atheists.” Hitchens is constantly scolded for being too sharp (remember his goodbye to Jerry Falwell), and the others are also criticized regularly by fellow atheists.

    No. The notion that religion is a viral meme is a pretty new and raw application of the unproven notion of the meme. Demons are living, supernatural entities imagined to be bent on some sort of destruction. We can research memes. Anybody for Demonology 101?

    In short, Mr. Wilson needs to get out more. Read a little. Think clearly. The hand-waving declaration reminds me of C.S. Lewis, much quoted and admired by those who do not get out much or think clearly. I’ll not read parts 2-6 of this, if part one is typical of the rest.

  12. #12 Mod
    October 22, 2009

    The new atheists hate religion for causing between-group conflict and especially for its wanton disregard of the canons of rational thought

    Not really. “New Atheists” seem to me to be pointing out that religion exacerbates our tendency to between group adversity by creating a new set of groups. The wanton disregard of rational thought isn’t always a problem – but when it comes to certain policy or social decisions, religious ideas can sometimes ‘get in the way’.

    Now imagine similar contests among beliefs–and the brains that create beliefs–taking place over thousands of generations of genetic and cultural evolution. Voila! We arrive at a conception of human mentality that is far more nuanced and interesting than the black-and-white cartoon of atheism vs. religion.

    I don’t think ‘new atheists’ dispute any of that. The only black-and-white cartoon is one where the new atheists don’t dispute that cultural evolution takes place and serves as a reasonable explanatory hypothesis for the diversity of ideas, religious or otherwise.

    If anything, non-religious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.

    Yes and no. The reason why religious ideas tend to be of greater concern is because those that hold them get very very upset when you question them. With other beliefs, one might get upset but there is generally a greater chance of readjusting your beliefs because your entire life and world view hasn’t been focussed entirely around it.

    Naturally – there are times when non-religious beliefs become a significant important belief. Such as animal rights.

    The discerning liberal (or any intellectual) would be a fool to assume that atheism stands for pure reason, just because it doesn’t invoke the gods

    Anybody would be fool who thinks that ‘atheism’ stands for anything. All it is is a lack of belief in a certain class of entities. You can believe in ghosts, djinn, domovoi (possibly), leszi, psychic powers and even an afterlife and still be an atheist.

    How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).

    Arguing by book title? Really?

    The rest of the paragraph doesn’t follow. Are you suggesting that criticising something as being bad makes the critic a follower of a stealth religion? Even if the person accepts that religion has some potential benefits too? The argument the new atheists seem to me to be promoting is more along the lines of ‘many of the supposed benefits of religion aren’t unique to religion. Those that are are more than outweighed by the costs’.

    If I said that about Marxism would that make aMarxism a stealth religion?

    And does this mean that the anti-new-atheists that portray atheists as not being nuanced, of being to simplified and so on and so forth as being likewise a stealth religion?

    Evolutionary theory tells us that this objective doesn’t come naturally and that some clever social engineering will be required, much as enduring religions manage to expand the circle of cooperation more widely than the tiny social groups of our ancestral past. The new atheists will need to display a virtue typically associated with religion–humility–if they wish to join this enterprise.

    I’ve not seen any of the ‘new atheists’ disputing that religion might have been or be important to social cooperation within a group. The point is that they think that the tradeoffs weigh towards the negative rather than the positive.

    I keep seeing criticism of the ‘new atheists’ that seem divorced from what any new atheist seems to be saying in totality. Overly simplifying their positions and then knocking them down in clever sounding criticisms.

    You say you’ve done a critique of Breaking the Spell. Are you honestly not of the opinion that Dennett expresses a nuanced view of religion? Does he not discuss the possible dangers of ‘breaking the spell’ and why he is going ahead with the book anyway? He even includes as a possiblity the non-religious beliefs such as football supporters in the discussion!

    Welcome to sb – despite my critical tone I plan to look forward to reading your posts over the years!

  13. #13 Douglas Watts
    October 22, 2009

    The categories of “non-religious people” and “new atheists” are very distinct and very different. “New atheism” is a group of people with a specific political and cultural agenda which began with attempting to keep various religious groups from interfering with the teaching of empirical science in schools but has now morphed into the rather outlandish and rationally tenuous platform that all religions are per se “bad” and all people who have any degree of affiliation with any religion are “delusional.”

    To me there is nothing un-scientific about pondering if there are powers or entities which are so far beyond the detection limit of existing science that science is unable to confirm or falsify them. To exclude this possibility requires one to admit that science today is sufficiently powerful to explain all possible phenomena, the knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. To me this is like saying there is no possibility of discovering additional subatomic particles simply because we have already discovered all of them. This in fact was held by many physicists after the basic subatomic model was solidified. Then Paul Dirac predicted the positron by theory alone, it was later discovered experimentally, and an entire new class of anti-particles was discovered. Lord Kelvin famously declared after Maxwell’s theory was complete that there was little else in classical physics left to be discovered. Then Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by accident; Planck investigated black body radiation; Einstein did relativity 1 and 2 etc. etc. and now Lord Kelvin’s statement looks ludicrous.

  14. #14 MEAgain
    October 22, 2009

    First, a welcome to D.S. Wilson to SciBlogs. Glad to have you aboard!

    Second, a welcome to someone who is NOT P.Z. Meyers. Glad to have you aboard!

    Third, sorry to hear that you are a liberal, but we all have our faults…

    Finally, as a person with an atheistic world view, namely, I don’t posit the existence of gods as necessary for anything, I think you give the “new atheists” way too much credit. Most other non-theists I know don’t really put much stock into Dennett or Dawkins, the two scientists, let alone Harris, the philosopher, and Hitchens, the publicity hound.

    In the same way, you give Rand way too much credit as well for creating something she really had little influence on at all. My use of “free markets” that they are an effective, practical tool that yields me lots of benefits. I find “free markets” to be good for me and good for the other parties to the transaction, otherwise, why do they keep coming back to me for more transactions?

  15. #15 Douglas Watts
    October 22, 2009

    My use of “free markets” that they are an effective, practical tool that yields me lots of benefits.

    Do you drink from a public water supply or flush a toilet? Do you purchase the air you breathe?

  16. #16 titmouse
    October 22, 2009

    Truth is tricky business. We have direct personal knowledge in a few areas, and we learn a coherent framework of physical laws and interrelationships that helps us guess whether some hearsay is plausible or not.

    Outside our area of expertise we’re stuck with hearsay. So we need a way to guage who is a reliable expert, and a way to decide if we’re hearing an opinion reflective of a large consensus of experts or not.

    As individuals we can’t poll all the experts and aggregate their opinions into a consensus view. Instead we turn to “thought leaders” –charismatic, intelligent, well spoken, and apparently trustworthy experts.

    So the find-the-truth game reduces down to find-the-leader. And here’s where all the human emotional wiring regarding attachment bonds and in-group/out-group feelings kicks in. It takes a bit of effort to continue seeking after truth once one becomes cozy with a likeminded group.

    “Religion” may be a distraction. Without religion, humans will still slip into cultish delusion –antivax, HIV denialism, alt med, truthers, Lysenko, etc.

    Maybe that’s what you’re saying.

  17. #17 titmouse
    October 22, 2009

    Afterthought: Does “be humble” ever provoke a spirit of humility? Why do people hear stealth narcissism in those words?

  18. #18 bullofthewoods
    October 23, 2009

    Atheism is a lack of belief in god or gods. It is not a religion or cult. It is simply a lack of belief. That is all it is. As an atheist myself I agree with some atheists and disagree with others on any number of subjects. Anyway welcome to sciblogs!

  19. #19 ivo
    October 23, 2009

    I have greatly appreciated Evolution for Everyone, and this may have heightened my expectations here. Anyway, I feel compelled to respond to some of your points.

    The new atheists hate religion for causing between-group conflict and especially for its wanton disregard of the canons of rational thought. Yet, both of these problems extend far more widely than religion.

    I don’t think any ‘new atheist’ is claiming that religion has a monopoly of these problems (and yes, the title The Root of all Evil wasn’t Dawkins’ choice, as he took pains to explain). Rather, what the 4 horsemen and many other are pointing out is that religions have the additional problem that certain (bad and possibly bad) ideas are sacred, i.e., completely shielded from criticism. Dennett’s book in particular argues that this criticism should be allowed, just as for any other ideas.

    Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions.

    The obvious difference, that you so nonchalantly ignore here, is that no scientific theory is held as the Absolute Truth (TM), not even at its heydays. No-one is burned for criticising it. Noone tries to enforce them on the general populace, or to uphold them in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, only because they make you feel good inside.

    These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents–a particular departure from factual realism–is just a detail.

    Really? Appeals to the supernatural are very central to all religious modes of thinking — indeed, such quasi-religious as Buddhism or Taoism are considered religions only insofar as they follow this trend, otherwise they are usually (and rightly) considered philosophical doctrines or ways of life, such as stoicism or epicureism.

    It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, non-religious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.

    Once again, you ignore the central problem: only religions systematically elevate blind faith to a virtue, and criticism is deemed a mortal sin. The usual fail-safe mechanisms against bad ideas — open discussion, criticism, innovation and so on — are unable to operate in religious discourse, and this is a very specific problem mostly absent from other contexts.

    How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).

    This is so poor I won’t even comment on, except for noting that you seem to imply that Dennett’s title, “breaking the spell”, means what is not meant to. (The unquestioned authority of its leaders? Are you serious?!)

    Evolutionary theory tells us that this objective doesn’t come naturally and that some clever social engineering will be required, much as enduring religions manage to expand the circle of cooperation more widely than the tiny social groups of our ancestral past. The new atheists will need to display a virtue typically associated with religion–humility–if they wish to join this enterprise.

    And how did enduring religions did manage to endure, to evolve? It is my understanding that ‘new atheists’ claim that this happened mostly because of pressure from outside, from society in general and from loud critics of religious negative aspects in particulare — i.e., the old ‘new atheists’ of the day. So, nothing new here.

    Sorry for the too long post…

  20. #20 Pierce R. Butler
    October 23, 2009

    … a virtue typically associated with religion–humility…

    Where have we heard this crap before?

    The only association between religion and humility is that of a false advertising claim. Those who claim to know, to speak and to act on behalf of the Ultimate Almighty SuperDuper deserve that term only ironically sarcastically.

    Oh wait, that’s not quite correct. “Humility” might also accurately describe the state of those on the bottom of the religious pecking order, the sheep (arguably the dumbest organism on four legs), those whose highest functions are to submit unquestioningly, to obey, to tithe, and to spread ‘em.

    Please, Dr. Wilson, don’t repeat that tendentious and arrogant suggestion again, unless you want your SciBlogs experience to be one of closely inspecting middle-fingernails.

  21. #21 Spaulding
    October 23, 2009

    the unquestioned authority of its leaders,

    That would be a warning sign in any movement, but atheism fails that religion test. Heck, the “leaders” don’t even agree with each other in many cases, let alone with the millions of others who call themselves atheists. It’s not the sort of cohesive hierarchy that you pretend it is – rather it’s a scattered collection of people who agree on some ideas to the degree that many of them can be described with the same very broad label.

    Your “stealth religion” concept could be a useful one, but you’ll need to be clearer in your definition. If all it takes to be a “religion” is for a group to embrace some ideas and reject others, then I think your definition is uselessly broad.

    Anyway, welcome! I look forward to your contributions to ScienceBlogs!

  22. #22 Mike Dark
    October 23, 2009

    @6. There are symbols and rituals in baseball..does that make it a stealth religion?

    Of course it is! Blind hope and faith are the essence of baseball fans everywhere. And baseball makes a great religion based on failure rather than an unachievable perfection!

  23. #23 NewEnglandBob
    October 24, 2009

    I see straw man arguments here as far as the eye can see. Is this Kansas?

  24. #24 Blaine
    October 25, 2009

    The new atheists hate religion for causing between-group conflict and especially for its wanton disregard of the canons of rational thought. Yet, both of these problems extend far more widely than religion.

    I don’t know of too many Atheists, even prominent ones, who would disagree that these problems extend beyond religion. I think their primary focus tends to be on religion specifically because, unlike other belief systems or mass movements, the religious have tried to carve out a societal niche that exempts their beliefs from the same kind of harsh, full frontal criticism one can expect in almost every other walk of life.

    These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism.

    Uh, for one I would LOVE to know what your exact definition of a “religion” is given the fact that there exist many types of religion. Many religious scholars contend, and I agree, that one CANNOT come up with a general definition of religion that manages to describe all world religions.

    And secondly, if your second point is true…. would that not make ALL mass movements religions? In politics for instance, the scenario you used between Igor and Hans, happens all the time between Liberals and Conservatives in the US, would you claim that either of them is a religion because of it? If this is the best you can do to color another mass movement a religion, then you’re off to a poor start.

    If anything, non-religious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they do a better job of masquerading as factual reality.

    According to whom?

    That brings us back to atheism. The discerning liberal (or any intellectual) would be a fool to assume that atheism stands for pure reason, just because it doesn’t invoke the gods. We need to give atheism a good hard look to see if it is functioning as a stealth religion. Fortunately, basic design principles enable us to do just that.

    As an Atheist myself, I’ve never believed that atheism ALONE stands for pure reason. There are plenty of Atheists, today and throughout history, who believe plenty of other awkward and completely unrealistic things. Your example of Ayn Rand is a perfect indication of this.

    How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).

    Uh, please show me this “unquestioned authority” of atheist leaders. Even the prominent leaders you’re undoubtedly referring to can’t agree with eachother all the time, so I haven’t the foggiest idea what sort of lock step, robotic, “yes master” Atheists you’re talking about. And your reference to Dennett’s book title is a tad misleading if I may say so.

    This post really doesn’t do much for me, I suppose I was expecting more. Now I’m not sure how much you’ve read on the subject so you’re welcome to correct me, but Sociologists and Philosophers have long discussed the underlying similarities of how mass movements (from political to religious) behave. The idea, however, that because these similarities exist in some situations… that it must mean that atheism is JUST like theistic religions (and is indeed, a religion itself) is a very broad and generalized conclusion that I’m a little disappointed to see someone such as yourself make.

  25. #25 bilbo
    October 26, 2009

    [QUOTE]How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).[/QUOTE]

    Bingo, although I think this applies to the new atheist blogosphere even moreso than their books. As to unquestioned authority, read the comments section on a new atheist blog: every post is full of readers simply raising their hands and yelling “Yes, Lord!!”, while the first poster to suggest any criticism of the NA blogger gets demonized throughout the rest of the thread. Critical discussion is effectively (and seemingly purposefully) quashed.

    As has been said before and as you correctly imply again (“good good good or bad bad bad”), vague generalities are a practice in absolutism that has become a staple in the new atheist world. Statements like “ALL religion is worthless” purposefully broadbrush the opposition and at the same time provide unquestionable support for the atheist perspective. Positive qualities about the religious are often quashed as irrelevant because of the absolutist ‘evils’ of religion.

    As usual, David, spot on.

  26. #26 E.V.
    October 26, 2009

    You know your ideology is wonky when Bilbo is your biggest cheerleader. (He has issues)
    First:Don’t confuse hate with contempt.
    Second: Be careful with all combustibles Erin – Straw Men go up in flames very easily.

    Move along – nothing to see here.

  27. #27 Himself
    November 13, 2009

    only religions systematically elevate blind faith to a virtue

    The Orthodox and Roman churches insist that faith be informed by reason, and not be blind. Also, they teach that sometimes one must choose the lesser of two evils; IOW, it’s not all {good, good, good} vs. {bad, bad, bad}, but nuanced. The nature of the good can be found in The Nichomachian Ethics. The good really is absolute – one would have to be a hell of a relativist to consider premeditated murder a good – but there are degrees of attainment of the good.

    Anyone who thought they had explained religion [whatever that means] by evolution would probably analyze Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto as compression waves in the air. That is, one may learn something interesting, but would never get to the essence of it. Physical science concerns the abstracting from the measured properties of material bodies, like planets or finches. (Mathematics concerns the abstracted properties of ideal bodies, like circles or topological networks.) But this leaves out most of human experience.

    If the only instrument we possessed was a balance, we could study religion by weighing all believers (and perhaps all the texts, and calculating the believer to text ratio and so on) and we would then suppose, having no other instrument, that we had “explained” religion. But we would only have reached the limits of our methodology.
    + + +

    Please, Dr. Wilson, don’t repeat that tendentious and arrogant suggestion again, unless you want your SciBlogs experience to be one of closely inspecting middle-fingernails.

    “Shut up,” he explained. Now that’s reasoned discourse.

  28. #28 popdarwin
    October 24, 2010

    Sorry for coming into the thread stale. I’m glad to see the inclusion of religion as a topic of evolutionary thought. Religion is so pervasive a style of thinking, that it would be surprising if atheism wasn’t infected by some pulpit bullying.
    Evolution is a lazy designer, designing only for incremental advantage when it made the brain. We should expect some imprecisions like the tendency to turn everything into a religion. After all, the brain evolved to gather berries and bite lice from our mates’ necks. How much precision did THAT require?

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